Let me offer my customary disclaimer (covering any and all poor writing, misguided thinking, or half-baked ideas).
I’ve chosen to arrange my thoughts topically rather than verse-by-verse.
The Righteous and Language
Throughout the chapter, but culminating in these verses, I see Nephi describing the connection between the righteous saints and language (both written and oral).
v. 1 – “Christ . . . shall show himself unto you . . . and the words which he shall speak unto you shall be the law which ye shall do.”
From the very first verse, it’s a question of relating to words. Christ will show himself (in the form of a sign?), but their response is to be determined by what he says to them. I don’t have much to say about this, and I don’t find it inherently significant, but it’s a mention of words, so I thought I’d include it.
v. 3 – “The wicked . . . perish because they cast out the prophets, and teh saints, and stone them, and slay them; wherefore the cry of the blood of the saints shall ascend up to God from the ground against them.”
As Nephi knows first-hand through the account of his father, the prophets and saints are cast out and slain because of their message. The wicked are intent upon stopping the words that speak against and condemn them. They, too, are characterized by language–they attempt to silence it. But the words of the righteous won’t be silenced–the very blood of the saints speaks to God from the ground.
v. 5 – “They that kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up.”
Unlike the righteous, the wicked are utterly and completely destroyed–their voice doesn’t reach beyond the grave. Both the wicked and the righteous are humbled to the dust, but the split between the two groups arises in their echo.
v. 7 – “I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just.”
Nephi himself is almost destroyed (“consumed” serving as a parallel with v. 6, as noted in Joe’s post), but like the blood of the saints in v. 3, he also cries to God. Interesting, then, that Nephi’s primary concern seems to be writing a record to future generations–speaking well beyond his death.
v. 8 – “But behold, the righteous that hearken unto the words of the prophets, and destroy them not . . . are they which shall not perish.”
This intrigues me because of its relation, again, to death and destruction. Here that destruction is negated by the righteous’ relation to the message of the prophets, but it’s still clear that it’s the righteous who hearken and look forward for signs.
v. 15 – “. . . The words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard”
v. 16 – “Those who shall be destroyed shall speak unto them out of the ground, and their speech shall be low out of the dust”
v. 17 – “They shall write the things that shall be done among them, and they shall be sealed up in a book.”
This is a major theme throughout the Book of Mormon. The whole record is addressed primarily to the Lehite remnant by their ancestors (see title page). The writers were heavily preoccupied with this record being preserved (as we’re seeing here in Nephi, and as we’ve seen concerning Moroni. Enos 1:12-17 and Alma 37 also come immediately to mind, but I’m positive that it’s evidenced elsewhere).
Woven into this question of the righteous and language is the oral/textual nature of the message. It almost seems as though the words of the righteous are not expressed through a text until after their death; although committed to the text during their their lifetime, it can’t speak until after their death. What can we make of this?
Why is it that the righteous write texts? Is it out of concern (charity) for future generations, a concern that relates to the sealing of the entire human family and does not preoccupy the wicked?
2 Nephi 26:15 is a quotation of Isaiah 29:3. I don’t see anything particularly significant in this, but it’s worth noting that in both it is the Lord who besieges the people. While in Nephi’s account the Gentiles are the mechanism for this, the ultimate motivation is attributed to God. But while Isaiah’s prophesy is addressed to Jerusalem, Nephi takes it to apply to the Lehite remnant of Israel.
Isaiah 29:4 is also quoted in 2 Nephi 26:14. In both cases it’s the destroyed Israelites who are speaking low out of teh ground, but for Isaiah it’s all of Jerusalem, and it’s decidedly negative. The people are reduced to a weak, otherworldly presence, the kind that is witnessed in the paltry attempts of mediums to hear the voice of the dead, often through ventriloguqism and other illusory means. For Nephi, as well, everyone “shall have been brought down low in the dust,” but those whose voices return from the grave are only those belonging to the righteous. For Nephi, the return from the dust is positive, a sign of righteousness and a way of fulfilling God’s purposes to the Lehite remnant.
The Isaiah quotation continues in v. 18 of 2 Nephi 26. What fascinates me here is that, while every other element of these three verses in Isaiah is present, Nephi leaves out the phrase “the multitude of thy strangers shall be like small dust.” Why is this phrase missing? It could be a simiple matter of textual changes in Isaiah subsequent to Nephi’s source text, and that possibility shouldn’t be ignored. But it doesn’t quite satisfy me.
I focused on two elements of this missing phrase: “stranger” and “dust.” Dust, for Nephi, is associated with the voice speaking from it, and that is the voice of the righteous. The “strangers” aren’t righteous or members of Israel, so their voice isn’t what Nephi is interested in, so he removes them from his dust imagery. They are a distraction from his theme of righteous ancestors speaking from the dust to future generations. (I’m very interested in and open to other readings, however. I feel that my preoccupation with texts and language is inhibitng my ability to see other options.)
2 Nephi 26:17 jumps ahead to Isaiah 29:11 to incorporate the idea of a sealed record. It’s out of Isaiah’s strict sequence, but only to highlight the connection, again, between the righteous (dead) remnant and their voice speaking from the dust/texts. (Let me try to rephase this: I see Nephi mixing up the sequence of the Isaiah text because it fits in better with his ownpurposes. His reading of Isaiah is thematically focused on the voice of the remnant, and to keep his own prophecy cohesive, he prematurely introduces Isaiah’s imagery of a sealed book.)
A bit more tenuous, but something that intrigued me, is Isaian 29:18 in connection with 2 Nephi 26:15 (“the words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard”). Isaiah 29:18 reads: “and in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.” A written text must be read with the eyes, and a spoken voie must be heard. I’m wondering if this miracle (the blind seeing, the deaf hearing) embedded in Isaiah’s text can be understood as part of Nephi’s “marvelous work and wonder,” (2 Ne 25:17) the Lord allowing for the possibility of receiving the words of the ancients.
It seems fairly clear to me that Nephi is not reading Isaiah according to what Isaiah intended. The prophesy is applied to a different branch of Israel, and the negative image of a voice speaking as if with a familiar spirit (from beyond the grave) takes on a positive connotation. I feel confident in asserting that Isaiah, thus far, is not referring to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the Lamanite remnant in the latter days, yet Nephi appropriates Isaiah’s imagery for his own prophetic reading in precisely this manner.
Isn’t Nephi “wresting” the text, so to speak? Are there boundaries to this type of application? or are they (frustratingly) determined only by the purely subjective direction of the Spirit? If this type of out-of-context application were demonstrated in Sunday School, I admit that I would be extremely uncomfortable. But because this instance is authored by Nephi, an ancient prophet, all concern melts away.
And yet Nephi himself seems to mark this subjectivity with the personal pronoun in v. 14: “I prophesy unto you.” Previous to this, Nephi has more passively said “I say unto you” or “I have beheld” (v. 3), but this is the first time that Nephi explicitly calls his writing a prophecy. Nephi calims this prophesy as his own, distancing himself from Isaiah.
For what it’s worth, there’s a possible chiastic structure in these verse (although I haven’t given too much thought to it):
A) Dwindled in unbelief (v. 15)
B) Smitten by Gentiles (v. 15)
C) Destruction (v. 15)
D) Righteous shall write (v. 15)
D’) Righteous shall write (v. 15)
C’) Destruction (v. 18)
B’) Smitten by Gentiles (v. 19)
A’) Dwindled in unbelief (v. 19)
It might also be worth noting that the following pattern occurs in v. 16: “out of the ground,” “out of the dust,” “out of the ground,” “out of the dust.”
Again, neither were a focus of my study, but I thought I would include them.